In this episode of The Torch, we gain insight into early Christianity, Jesus, and his apostles by examining the fascinating texts known as the Christian Apocrypha.
Here to discuss the “The Apochryphal Jesus” is Professor David Brakke, Ph.D.
The following transcript has been slightly edited for readability.
What are the Apocrypha?
The Great Courses: David, for people who are new to this subject, What are the Apocrypha and what can they tell us about Jesus?
David Brakke: The Apocrypha are basically a set of early Christian literature that deal with the same characters and people that you meet in the New Testament. They’re gospels, letters or adventures of apostles, but what they all have in common is that they are not in the New Testament.
When the New Testament was formed, most decisively in the 300’s, none of these works were included. What they give us access to are ideas about Jesus and his apostles that Christians of the first two to five centuries had about Jesus. Ideas that became very influential in Christianity but are not actually found in the New Testament.
The Great Courses: They sound essentially like outtakes from the New Testament. Why were they left out? Were they considered heretical or blasphemous?
David Brakke: Some of the writing that we study in the Apocrypha were considered in antiquity to be heretical or marginally orthodox in some ways, it had ideas that mainstream Christians did not think represented Christian truth.
Most of them were not included in the New Testament because the Christians who put together the New Testament did not think they were necessarily written in the earlier period by apostles or people that knew the apostles.
The Great Courses: If I am someone of devout Christian belief, am I likely to find this subject matter offensive?
I don’t think that there’s much in this literature that would offend Christians. None of it is Official Christian Literature.
The Great Courses: You had mentioned that there’s a bit of controversy around the Apocrypha. Is this what is driving that controversy?
David Brakke: What mostly drives the scholarly controversy about the Apocrypha is how actually to define the Apocrypha, what it means when we use the term, and what should and should not be included in it, because Christian literature just continues until the present moment.
If we just think about literature, music, art, and now even films that depict Jesus and the apostles that aren’t in the New Testament, it continues right up to the present moment.
Part of the issue when you talk about the New Testament Apocrypha is when does it stop? What should you include and not include? Part of it is a simple scholarly controversy about what you include.
Learn More: The Influence of Apocrypha
In individual works of Apocrypha, there’s often controversy, for example, whether they do in fact give us access to information about Jesus or the apostles that is not in the New Testament, that’s actually potentially accurate.
A good example of that is the Gospel of Thomas, which discusses many things of Jesus that don’t appear in the New Testament. The question arises among scholars: Do these things in the Gospel of Thomas go back to Jesus? Historians fight about this. They don’t all agree.
There are controversies about individual texts and then there’s just the whole issue of what constitutes the Apocrypha.
The Great Courses: How have the Apocrypha shaped modern beliefs and understandings of Christianity?
David Brakke: Some of the ideas and things we know about early Christianity end up coming actually from the Apocrypha and not the New Testament. Some of these most prevalent ideas are things like Peter being crucified upside down. Not every Christian is aware of this idea but many Christians are and they think this is what happened to Peter, but the New Testament doesn’t tell us anything about this. This actually occurs in an Apocryphal text called the Acts of Peter.
Learn More: Miracles and Magic in the Acts of Peter
Many of the kind of traditional things we think about Jesus’s family, Mary and Joseph, for example that Joseph is much older than Mary or that Jesus’s brothers and sisters are actually Joseph’s children from a previous marriage and so on, all these ideas are not in the New Testament but found in Apocrypha. A lot of the things that we think are true about Jesus and his apostles actually come from Apocryphal literature.Many things we think are true about Jesus and his apostles come from Apocryphal literature. Click To Tweet
The Great Courses: Christian attitudes towards sexuality and marriage were evidently still being formed in the first couple of centuries after Jesus’s death. What can we learn about them from the Apocrypha?
David Brakke: In the Apocrypha, there are plenty of stories about people getting married or not getting married.
Many of the what we call Apocryphal acts of the apostles, which are stories of the adventures of the apostles after Jesus sent them off to preach the word, feature women converting to Christianity and then deciding to leave their husbands, or not have sex with them, or never get married in the first place.
Some Apocryphal gospels, especially most prominently a lost one called the Gospel of the Egyptians, has Jesus discuss the issues of whether it’s right for Christians to get married and to reproduce.Christian Apocrypha look at how Christians debated issues, they aren't theological treaties. Click To TweetApocryphal texts give us access to Christian debates about these issues with some Christians arguing that Christianity means getting married, and having a family, and that’s what you should do.
Other Christians arguing that, “No.Christianity is about separating from this world and concentrating on spiritual and heavenly matters and not doing things like getting married and having a family and doing all that kind of stuff.”
The Christian Apocrypha is a fun way to look at how Christians debated these issues, because of course they’re not theological treatises where people are making arguments, instead they’re stories that play out these ideas in ways that are entertaining.
The Role of Women in Early Christianity
The Great Courses: What can the Apocrypha can tell us about the role of women in early Christianity. When you were mentioning stories, I was thinking about the Gospel of Paul and Thecla.
David Brakke: You know, the Apocryphal literature are a place where Christians are often able to think about characters and people that aren’t especially prominent in the New Testament or don’t appear there, and many of these characters are women.
In the Acts of Paul, there is portion called the Acts of Paul and Thecla in which Paul has an especially devoted disciple named Thecla who gives up the idea of getting married. She breaks her engagement to follow Paul, and eventually Paul sends her forth to be a teacher and preacher of the word of God.
What we see in a text like this is a time when some Christians believed that women could preach and teach. Once again, the text doesn’t make an argument for this. It’s not a theological disquisition on what women should do. Instead it tells a story about a prominent woman doing this kind of stuff.
Learn More: Thecla: Independent Woman of the Apocrypha
The role of women is another area where Apocryphal literature gives us a way of entering into the world of early Christianity that some other forms of literature don’t let us see.
The Gospel of Thomas
The Great Courses: One especially intriguing Apocryphal work, the Gospel of Thomas, you say, represents the “path not taken” by Christianity. What do you mean by that?
David Brakke: What first distinguishes it from the gospels we are used to from the New Testament is that it tells no stories about Jesus. Jesus doesn’t really do anything. Instead, all he does is teach. It’s just a collection of the sayings of Jesus.
If you read the Gospel of Thomas, you would know nothing about Jesus’s birth, about his ministry, and above all, from the Gospel of Thomas you don’t learn anything about how Jesus died, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate and supposedly died for people’s sins.
This is what makes the Gospel of Thomas a kind of different path to salvation within Christianity. That is unlike the gospels of the New Testament and most of Christian tradition, the Gospel of Thomas does not teach that Jesus saves people by dying for them on the cross. Instead, Jesus saves people by revealing to them truth, knowledge about God and themselves through his sayings.
You’re saved by hearing and reading the sayings of Jesus and trying to understand them. You’re not saved by having faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection. This is a very different understanding of what salvation means and what Christ came to do.
By not including the Gospel of Thomas in the New Testament and including the other gospels instead, the leaders of Christianity definitely made a choice to go in that direction rather than the kind of more mystical path that the Gospel of Thomas represents.
The Story of Pontius Pilate
The Great Courses: You mentioned Pontius Pilate. Some of the Apocrypha portray him, even though he was the Roman governor who sends Jesus to death, as a saint. Why would Christians write such a thing, even when the ideas of Christianity were still taking shape?
David Brakke: This is a really interesting thing about Pilate. You would think that he would be seen as kind of the great villain of the Jesus story since he’s the one who ordered Jesus to be killed, but in fact the great villain of the Jesus story ends up being Judas who betrays Jesus, the disciple of Jesus who goes bad.
Secondarily, Jewish leaders of the time become kind of seen by Christians as the bad people. According to Christians, the Jews should have recognized that this was their Messiah and not turned him over to Pilate.
What happens is that Christians increasingly see Pilate, at first in a kind of ambivalent way. They see that he was wrong to put Jesus to death, but they kind of say, “Well, he had no choice. The Jews and Judas kind of put him in this situation.”
Learn More: The Apocrypha and Pilate’s Sanctification
As time goes on and we end up in the second, third, and fourth centuries of Christianity, more and more Christians began to think that Pilate must have at some point realized his error. Or that he represents the idea that nonbelievers, non Jews, Romans, Gentiles like Pilate would eventually become Christians.
More and more, they begin to present Pilate in a very positive way and certain Apocryphal texts, especially from the 300’s and 400’s, present him as eventually recognizing that Jesus was the Son of God, regretting what he did, repenting and being forgiven by God, acting in a kind of saintly way, and being recognized by God as someone who saw his error and repented.
Now, part of this surely is the fact that in the 300’s and 400’s Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christians more and more felt the need to present Roman imperial officials like Pilate in a more positive light. Pilate beings to kind of represent the Roman Empire, which may have opposed Christianity at first but eventually turned Christian and embraced it.
The Gospel of Judas
The Great Courses: You’ve talked about how Pontius Pilate was made out to be the bad guy, but really the bad guy is Judas. The Gospel of Judas was recently discovered. Why did it take so long to get that Gospel of Judas discovered, and what was the process by which that came to light?
David Brakke: Well, we always knew there was a Gospel of Judas because around the year 180, a Christian bishop named Arenavirus mentions it and says that Gnostics wrote it, but we didn’t have it.
Clearly what happened at some point is that Christian scribes just stopped copying it. No one wanted to read it. It wasn’t included in the New Testament. It was gnostic, so people weren’t that interested, so at some point it got lost.
Also at some point in antiquity, probably in the third century, it was translated from the original Greek into Coptic, which is the language of Egypt, the kind of ancient Egyptian language, and a manuscript that contained this translation in Coptic was buried or left in a tomb or cave in Egypt in a place where of course it never rains, so manuscripts can just kind of sit there if they’re not found by somebody for centuries.
We believe this one Coptic translation, this one copy of the Gospel of Judas, was probably discovered in the late 70’s or 80’s. What happened was is that the people who got hold of it really wanted to get a lot of money for it.
They were trying to negotiate with various people to get what they considered to be what it was really worth, which was millions of dollars, but the institutions that would be interested or want to possess such a manuscript don’t have that much money.
It was not until after the year 2000, that the Maecenas Foundation, put up the money to actually get the codex that contains Judas and work to make it available to other scholars. It took a long time for them to do that.
We didn’t get to see it until 2006 in part because of so much damage the manuscript had suffered during this long period of negotiation of trying to find people willing to buy it.
In one particularly horrifying incident, one antiquities dealer actually put the manuscript in a freezer thinking that that would preserve it better. Because this manuscript is papyrus, it’s actually like plant material, so all it did was freeze the water in the papyrus. Then when it was pulled out and had thawed, it became all soggy. It was really a terrible thing that happened to this manuscript.
Learn more: The Gospel of Judas’s Gnostic Vision
The Great Courses: That’s an amazing story. Are there any Apocrypha out there that we’re still looking for?
David Brakke: Well, definitely yes. We know the names from ancient and medieval people of literally dozens of lost texts, right? There are plenty of things that we know existed at some point, various gospels and acts and letters and so forth, that we just don’t have.
Is it possible that some of these, are also translated into Coptic or something and in some cave or tomb somewhere in Egypt waiting to be discovered? It’s certainly possible. We just won’t know until they’re discovered.
The things that we study in this text obviously we have found, otherwise we couldn’t study them, and they range in their preservation from having hundreds of manuscripts. Something like the Proto-Gospel of James, which is a recounting of the birth and childhood of Mary, the mother of Jesus, that survived in many, many manuscripts because it was popular throughout Christian history even though it was not in the New Testament. But other Apocryphal works survive in only one or two manuscripts or they survive only fragmentarily and we have to kind of try to figure out and put them together.
Learn More: Jesus and Mary in the Proto-Gospel of James
It working on this course, I really gained a great admiration and appreciation for so many scholars who have worked so hard to recover this literature when the manuscripts that survive are often fragmentary and dispersed in libraries. It’s really amazing that we can even read some of the things we look at in this class.
The Great Courses: Many of the Apocrypha are forgeries, and yet forgeries were apparently quite common in early Christian literature. Why is that? Can you explain that situation?
David Brakke: Yeah. I mean, one of the really surprising things when you think about it and learn about early Christian literature is how many forgeries early Christians produced. Lots of Christians chose to write in the name of an apostle or some other prominent figure rather than in their own name. It was very prevalent in early Christianity.
The number of forged works, many are Apocryphal but some are in in the New Testament, is very large. Why did Christians do this? Well, surely the most basic reason is that if you were going to write a work that you wanted other people to read and you wanted them to take its ideas seriously, you probably figured, “Well, they’ll take my work a lot more seriously if I write in the name of Saint Paul than if I just write in my own name.” One reason for all this forgery simply is to give more authority to the text that you write so that people will actually read it.
We also get to a very important kind of characteristic of Christianity, which is that Christians in these first few centuries had a very high regard and respect for their earliest figures, for the original apostles. If you really wanted to claim that your ideas are valid in your debates with other Christians about various ideas and things, then it was really important to say that what you were teaching is what the original apostles taught. Forging something in the name of an original apostle was one way to do that.
The Apocalypse to Peter
The Great Courses: Lovers of Dante might be intrigued to learn that the Apocrypha contained tours of hell that actually predate Dante’s Inferno. Can you describe those a little?Lovers of Dante-the Apocrypha contain tours of hell that predate the Dante's Inferno Click To Tweet
David Brakke: Two very early Christian texts, the Revelation to Peter and the Revelation or Apocalypse to Paul, and there are different texts with these names, but two of these both include kind of visions of what’s going on in hell, and why people are suffering there, and what kind of punishments they’re enduring and so forth.
The Apocalypse to Peter or Revelation to Peter was probably written in the second century, and there that author describes all sorts of, especially Pagans, non Christians suffering in hell and having punishments that fit their crime. You know, if for example they were sexually immoral and so forth, they might hang by their hair or something. They suffer in some way that fits the crime that they have committed.
The text that really influenced Dante is what’s called the Apocalypse of Paul, or the in Latin the Visio Pauli, “Paul’s vision,” which we think was written in the late 300’s. It became very popular among Christian because it is a vision of hell in which most of the people suffering in hell and being punished are not pagans or Jews or other nonbelievers in Christian, but Christians themselves, Christians who have done bad things, especially members of the clergy who do not do their jobs right and heretics.
Again, it describes each of the kind of punishments they’re enduring in some kind of detail. It kind of serves in a way to tell Christians that it doesn’t matter how good you are or how important you are in the church. You need to do your job right and be good or you’re going to be punished.
This text, this Apocalypse of Paul from the late 300’s, became extremely popular. It was probably originally written in Greek, but it was translated into Latin and appears in many, many manuscripts and indeed it was available to Dante and served as a kind of nucleus for his version of hell in The Inferno.
Dante of course came up with many, many, many more sins than are in the Apocalypse of Paul, but the basic idea that individual sinners suffer punishments in hell that befit their crime is both an idea that makes sense and one that becomes very influential and indeed in the basis for Dante’s Inferno.
Learn More: Tours of Hell Before Dante
The Apocrypha Continue
The Great Courses: When did the period of writing Apocrypha works stop, or did it ever?
David Brakke: It never did, and this is one of the issues. We could have just continued this course even up to the present. Most of the Apocrypha that we study in this course were written before the New Testament was formed, so these are texts from the 100’s and 200’s.
There wasn’t yet an official New Testament, so people were continuing to produce Christian literature about Jesus and the apostles. They didn’t really recognize they were writing literature that was not in the New Testament that was extra to the New Testament because there wasn’t a New Testament.
The New Testament was formed, but that didn’t stop Christians from continuing to create new literature about the characters in the New Testament. At that point, they started to know that they were in fact building on the New Testament: augmenting, supplementing it.
What you have in the Middle Ages for example are things like mystery plays where events both in the Old and the New Testament are acted out, but they are always augmented with material that’s not in the Bible, because you know the Bible doesn’t tell us a lot of things that interest us and it doesn’t go into great detail on various characters.
Writing this kind of literature just continued, and even into the present people continue to write novels about Jesus and the apostles. They write plays. They make movies, none of which are simply reproducing what’s in the New Testament but all of which are kind of imaginatively expanding upon its stories.
What this course really introduces you to is the amazing fertility of the Christian imagination.